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Fussy and finicky even at experienced hands; far more expensive than it seems. Here's why:
on May 17, 2011
If you are anything like myself, you too have probably seen the many reviews and warning online citing how finicky the Rancilio Silvia is with its wild temperature swings and its taste for exact grinds. Like myself, you too are not bothered by any of that and are still considering the Silvia.
So in all fairness, there are plenty of GREAT things about this machine; It is good-looking (but design-wise it fails to make any statement, it is neither modern nor retro, doesn't look commercial but also doesn't look like a home machine). Great construction too (though slightly crude). It has features galore; brass boiler and brew group, large tank, ample steaming pressure etc. It is famously reliable and been made with little change for over a decade. On paper it seems to have it all, and it is the only machine of its class at this price point. The question is however, "can it pull a decent shot of espresso?" The short answer for it is, yes, it certainly can - but not straight out of the box on its own. It will require additional equipment, time and investment.
- First, spend at least a $350 on a burr grinder. Yes, you've heard this before and refused to believe it. It's true. This machine is so picky about grind that it will change on you with the room temperature and humidity. Be prepared to dump lots of shots to the garbage on a regular basis while re-adjusting. Let's assume your tamping technique is perfect, (and that you are using a good tamper -not the wrong-size plastic joke that comes with this machine, frankly an insult, don't even try it). With that in mind, some of the finest grinds from top-of-the-line grinders will yield extraction faster than the speed of light (double shot in 8 seconds), producing sour shot with poor crema. Grind just 0.1 point too fine and you will get a slow burnt, bitter drizzle from even the sweetest roast. Adding the minimal capable burr grinder realistically means that you should be willing to spend $1000 for the entire experience, so don't let the $650 price tag fool you. There is also $25-$80 you need to spend on a tamper. This is a must. In short, comparison-shop the Silvia against $1000 machines that need no grinder like the Expobar Office Pulser, Pasquini Livietta or La Pavoni PC-16 -not against the Francis-Francis X1 or the Baby Gaggia which may not seem to be at the same class at all but will give you much better shots with far less overall investment.
- Secondly, be prepared to learn to temperature-surf. Temperature swings are a major issue with this machine, so even with the perfect grind and tamping; your shot can still easily burn or come out weak and sour. Temperature surfing is acceptable when you try to improve a really great shot to Godliness, but if you can't achieve merely a consistent basic decent shot without surfing, you will quickly find it to be time-consuming and laborious; an annoyance that is not much of a joy as a morning routine.
Now there are hundreds of guides and videos all over the internet on how to temperature surf the Rancilio Silvia online (I especially liked "Cheating Mrs. Silvia"). There is even an entire aftermarket dedicated to digital temperature controllers for this machine. Wait, wait, can someone please stop the madness? Common sense... Doesn't the fact that this machine cannot brew espresso straight out of the box without all this nonsense raise some red flags to you? Shouldn't you expect a $650 machine to -at the very least give you some basic version of espresso without turning you into a hacker?
I can understand Rancilio not wanting to fix the brew group. After all, this grind-fussiness sells them thousands of their Rocky model grinders every year. I do however find it BAFFLING that after 10+ years and 3 versions of this machine, the temperature control issue had not been addressed. Thermocouples and PIDs are cheap and reliable, and so are dial thermometers and pressure gauges -which could be a lifesaver for users of this machine. In fact, these are standard features on far cheaper machines. What gives?
So like you, I too thought I would get over the learning curve and can win this machine over in spite of reviews and warnings. I am an ex-barista who had the pleasure to work on anything from La Pavoni, Gaggia, Expobar, Brasillia, Pasquini and Elektra to Francis-Francis and Ascado, using some of the world's finest beans and pro-grinders like Mazzer. I am embarrassed to admit that I spent the past week tossing about 400 shots to the trash before coming to terms with the fact that this machine is not reasonably designed to deliver a decent shot on a regular basis without extreme fuss and expensive grinder, which I have no space for in my Manhattan kitchen. (I also don't believe that my wife or guests would be able to operate it). At this price point I would take a La Pavoni or Expobar machine any day over this. And if you really only have $650 to spend, then get a Francis-Francis X1 or Gaggia Classic or even the super-automatic Gaggia Brera. You WILL get consistently far better shots and be able to use a wider range of grinds (even ESE pods) and some cash in your pocket too. The Rancilio Silvia has so much potential but I am sadly sending it back and getting a more capable machine. My recommendation: don't be tempted.